Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘The Octopus’
By Frank Norris (1870–1902)
(Book II., Chap. IV.)

AS Presley and Harran trotted on along the county road they continually passed or overtook other horsemen, or buggies, carryalls, buckboards, or even farm wagons, going in the same direction. These were full of the farming people from all the country round about Bonneville, on their way to the rabbit drive—the same people seen at the barn dance—in their Sunday finery, the girls in muslin frocks and garden hats, the men with linen dusters over their black clothes; the older women in prints and dotted calicoes. Many of these latter had already taken off their bonnets—the day was very hot—and pinning them in newspapers, stowed them under the seats. They tucked their handkerchiefs into the collars of their dresses, or knotted them about their fat necks, to keep out the dust. From the axle trees of the vehicles swung carefully covered buckets of galvanized iron, in which the lunch was packed. The younger children, the boys with great frilled collars, the girls with ill-fitting shoes cramping their feet, leaned from the sides of buggy and carryall, eating bananas and “macaroons,” staring about with ox-like stolidity. Tied to the axles the dogs followed the horses’ hoofs with lolling tongues coated with dust.  1
  The California summer lay blanketwise and smothering over all the land. The hills, bone-dry, were browned and parched. The grasses and wild-oats, sear and yellow, snapped like glass filaments under foot. The roads, the bordering fences, even the lower leaves and branches of the trees, were thick and gray with dust. All color had been burned from the landscape, except in the irrigated patches, that in the waste of brown and dull yellow glowed like oases.  2
  The wheat, now close to its maturity, had turned from pale yellow to golden yellow, and from that to brown. Like a gigantic carpet, it spread itself over all the land. There was nothing else to be seen but the limitless sea of wheat as far as the eye could reach, dry, rustling, crisp, and harsh in the rare breaths of hot wind out of the southeast.  3
  As Harran and Presley went along the county road, the number of vehicles and riders increased. They overtook and passed Hooven and his family in the former’s farm wagon, a saddled horse tied to the back board. The little Dutchman, wearing the old frock coat of Magnus Derrick, and a new broad-brimmed straw hat, sat on the front seat with Mrs. Hooven. The little girl Hilda, and the older daughter Minna, were behind them on a board laid across the sides of the wagon. Presley and Harran stopped to shake hands.  4
  “Say,” cried Hooven, exhibiting an old, but extremely well kept, rifle, “say, bei Gott, me, I tek some schatz at dose rebbit, you bedt. Ven he hef shtop to run and sit oop soh, bei der hind laigs on, I oop mit der guhn und bing! I cetch um.”  5
  “The marshals won’t allow you to shoot, Bismarck,” observed Presley, looking at Minna.  6
  Hooven doubled up with merriment.  7
  “Ho! dot’s hell of some fine joak. Me, I’m one oaf dose mairschell mine-selluf,” he roared with delight, beating his knee. To his notion, the joke was irresistible. All day long, he could be heard repeating it. “Und Mist’r Praicelie, he say, ‘Dose mairschell woand led you schoot, Bismarck,’ und me, ach Gott, me, aindt I mine-selluf one oaf dose mairschell?”  8
  As the two friends rode on, Presley had in his mind the image of Minna Hooven, very pretty in a clean gown of pink gingham, a cheap straw sailor hat from a Bonneville store on her blue black hair. He remembered her very pale face, very red lips, and eyes of greenish blue,—a pretty girl certainly, always trailing a group of men behind her. Her love affairs were the talk of all Los Muertos.  9
  “I hope that Hooven girl won’t go to the bad,” Presley said to Harran.  10
  “Oh, she’s all right,” the other answered. “There’s nothing vicious about Minna, and I guess she’ll marry that foreman on the ditch gang, right enough.”  11
  “Well, as a matter of course, she’s a good girl,” Presley hastened to reply, “only she’s too pretty for a poor girl, and too sure of her prettiness besides. That’s the kind,” he continued, “who would find it pretty easy to go wrong if they lived in a city.”  12
  Around Caraher’s was a veritable throng. Saddle horses and buggies by the score were clustered underneath the shed or hitched to the railings in front of the watering trough. Three of Broderson’s Portuguese tenants and a couple of workmen from the Railroad shops in Bonneville were on the porch, already very drunk.  13
  Continually, young men, singly or in groups, came from the doorway, wiping their lips with sidelong gestures of the hand. The whole place exhaled the febrile bustle of the saloon on a holiday morning.  14
  The procession of teams streamed on through Bonneville, reinforced at every street corner. Along the Upper Road from Quien Sabe and Guadalajara came fresh auxiliaries, Spanish-Mexicans from the town itself,—swarthy young men on capering horses, dark-eyed girls and matrons, in red and black and yellow, more Portuguese in brand-new overalls, smoking long thin cigars. Even Father Sarria appeared.  15
  “Look,” said Presley, “there goes Annixter and Hilma. He’s got his buckskin back.” The master of Quien Sabe, in top laced boots and campaign hat, a cigar in his teeth, followed along beside the carryall. Hilma and Mrs. Derrick were on the back seat, young Vacca driving. Harran and Presley bowed, taking off their hats.  16
  “Hello, hello, Pres,” cried Annixter, over the heads of the intervening crowd, standing up in his stirrups and waving a hand. “Great day! What a mob, hey? Say, when this thing is over and everybody starts to walk into the barbecue, come and have lunch with us. I’ll look for you, you and Harran. Hello, Harran, where’s the Governor?”  17
  “He didn’t come to-day,” Harran shouted back, as the crowd carried him farther away from Annixter. “Left him and old Broderson at Los Muertos.”  18
  The throng emerged into the open country again, spreading out upon the Osterman ranch. From all directions could be seen horses and buggies driving across the stubble, converging upon the rendezvous. Osterman’s Ranch house was left to the eastward; the army of the guests hurrying forward—for it began to be late—to where around a flagpole, flying a red flag, a vast crowd of buggies and horses was already forming. The marshals began to appear. Hooven, descending from the farm wagon, pinned his white badge to his hat brim and mounted his horse. Osterman, in marvelous riding clothes of English pattern, galloped up and down upon his best thoroughbred, cracking jokes with everybody, chaffing, joshing, his great mouth distended in a perpetual grin of amiability.  19
  “Stop here, stop here,” he vociferated, dashing along in front of Presley and Harran, waving his crop. The procession came to a halt, the horses’ heads pointing eastward. The line began to be formed. The marshals, perspiring, shouting, fretting, galloping about, urging this one forward, ordering this one back, ranged the thousands of conveyances and cavaliers in a long line, shaped like a wide open crescent. Its wings, under the command of lieutenants, were slightly advanced. Far out before its centre Osterman took his place, delighted beyond expression at his conspicuousness, posing for the gallery, making his horse dance.  20
  “Wail, aindt dey gowun to gommence den bretty soohn,” exclaimed Mrs. Hooven, who had taken her husband’s place on the forward seat of the wagon.  21
  “I never was so warm,” murmured Minna, fanning herself with her hat. All seemed in readiness. For miles over the flat expanse of stubble, curved the interminable lines of horses and vehicles. At a guess, nearly five thousand people were present. The drive was one of the largest ever held. But no start was made; immobilized, the vast crescent stuck motionless under the blazing sun. Here and there could be heard voices uplifted, in jocular remonstrance.  22
  “Oh, I say, get a move on, somebody.”  23
  “All aboard.”  24
  “Say, I’ll take root here pretty soon.”  25
  Some took malicious pleasure in starting false alarms.  26
  “Ah, here we go.”  27
  “Off, at last.”  28
  “We’re off.”  29
  Invariably these jokes fooled someone in the line. An old man, or some old woman, nervous, hard of hearing, always gathered up the reins and started off, only to be hustled and ordered back into the line by the nearest marshal. This manœuvre never failed to produce its effect of hilarity upon those near at hand. Everybody laughed at the blunderer, the joker jeering audibly.  30
  “Hey, come back here.”  31
  “Oh, he’s easy.”  32
  “Don’t be in a hurry, Grandpa.”  33
  “Say, you want to drive all the rabbits yourself.”  34
  Later on, a certain group of these fellows started a huge “josh.”  35
  “Say, that’s what we’re waiting for, the ‘do-funny.’”  36
  “The do-funny?”  37
  “Sure, you can’t drive rabbits without the ‘do-funny.’”  38
  “What ’s the do-funny?”  39
  “Oh, say, she don’t know what the do-funny is. We can’t start without it, sure. Pete went back to get it.”  40
  “Oh, you’re joking me, there’s no such thing.”  41
  “Well, aren’t we wailing for it?”  42
  “Oh, look, look,” cried some women in a covered rig. “See, they are starting already ’way over there.”  43
  In fact, it did appear as if the far extremity of the line was in motion. Dust rose in the air above it.  44
  “They are starting. Why don’t we start?”  45
  “No, they’ve stopped. False alarm.”  46
  “They’ve not, either. Why don’t we move?”  47
  But as one or two began to move off, the nearest marshal shouted wathfully:  48
  “Get back there, get back there.”  49
  “Well, they’ve started over there.”  50
  “Get back, I tell you.”  51
  “Where’s the ‘do-funny’?”  52
  “Say, we’re going to miss it all. They’ve all started over there.”  53
  A lieutenant came galloping along in front of the line, shouting:  54
  “Here, what’s the matter here? Why don’t you start?”  55
  There was a great shout. Everybody simultaneously uttered a prolonged “Oh-h.”  56
  “We’re off.”  57
  “Here we go for sure this time.”  58
  “Remember to keep the alignment,” roared the lieutenant. “Don’t go too fast.”  59
  And the marshals, rushing here and there on their sweating horses to points where the line bulged forward, shouted, waving their arms: “Not too fast, not too fast…. Keep back here…. Here, keep closer together here. Do you want to let all the rabbits run back between you?”  60
  A great confused sound rose into the air,—the creaking of axles, the jolt of iron tires over the dry clods, the click of brittle stubble under the horses’ hoofs, the barking of dogs, the shouts of conversation and laughter.  61
  The entire line, horses, buggies, wagons, gigs, dogs, men and boys on foot and armed with clubs, moved slowly across the fields, sending up a cloud of white dust, that hung above the scene like smoke. A brisk gayety was in the air. Everyone was in the best of humor, calling from team to team, laughing, skylarking, joshing. Garnett, of the Ruby Rancho, and Gethings, of the San Pablo, both on horseback, found themselves side by side. Ignoring the drive and the spirit of the occasion, they kept up a prolonged and serious conversation on an expected rise in the price of wheat. Dabney, also on horseback, followed them, listening attentively to every word, but hazarding no remark.  62
  Mrs. Derrick and Hilma sat in the back seat of the carryall, behind young Vacca. Mrs. Derrick, a little disturbed by such a concourse of people, frightened at the idea of the killing of so many rabbits, drew back in her place, her young-girl eyes troubled and filled with a vague distress. Hilma, very much excited, leaned from the carryall, anxious to see everything, watching for rabbits, asking innumerable questions of Annixter, who rode at her side.  63
  The change that had been progressing in Hilma, ever since the night of the famous barn-dance, now seemed to be approaching its climax; first the girl, then the woman, last of all the Mother. Conscious dignity, a new element in her character, developed. The shrinking, the timidity of the girl just awakening to the consciousness of sex, passed away from her. The confusion, the troublous complexity of the woman, a mystery even to herself, disappeared. Motherhood dawned, the old simplicity of her maiden days came back to her. It was no longer a simplicity of ignorance, but of supreme knowledge, the simplicity of the perfect, the simplicity of greatness. She looked the world fearlessly in the eyes. At last, the confusion of her ideas, like frightened birds, re-settling, adjusted itself, and she emerged from the trouble calm, serene, entering into her divine right, like a queen into the rule of a realm of perpetual peace.  64
  And with this, with the knowledge that the crown hung poised above her head, there came upon Hilma a gentleness infinitely beautiful, infinitely pathetic; a sweetness that touched all who came near her with the softness of a caress. She moved surrounded by an invisible atmosphere of Love. Love was in her wide-opened brown eyes, Love—the dim reflection of that descending crown poised over her head—radiated in a faint lustre from her dark, thick hair. Around her beautiful neck, sloping to her shoulders with full, graceful curves, Love lay encircled like a necklace—Love that was beyond words, sweet, breathed from her parted lips. From her white, large arms downward to her pink finger-tips—Love, an invisible electric fluid, disengaged itself, subtle, alluring. In the velvety huskiness of her voice, Love vibrated like a note of unknown music.  65
  Annixter, her uncouth, rugged husband, living in this influence of a wife, who was also a mother, at all hours touched to the quick by this sense of nobility, of gentleness, and of love, the instincts of a father already clutching and tugging at his heart, was trembling on the verge of a mighty transformation. The hardness and inhumanity of the man was fast breaking up. One night, returning late to the Ranch house, after a compulsory visit to the city, he had come upon Hilma asleep. He had never forgotten that night. A realization of his boundless happiness in this love he gave and received, the thought that Hilma trusted him, a knowledge of his own unworthiness, a vast and humble thankfulness that his God had chosen him of all men for this great joy, had brought him to his knees for the first time in all his troubled, restless life of combat and aggression. He prayed, he knew not what,—vague words, wordless thoughts, resolving fiercely to do right, to make some return for God’s gift thus placed within his hands.  66
  Where once Annixter had thought only of himself, he now thought only of Hilma. The time when this thought of another should broaden and widen into thought of Others, was yet to come; but already, as in the case of Mrs. Dyke, it had broadened to enfold another child and another mother bound to him by no ties other than those of humanity and pity. In time, starting from this point, it would reach out more and more till it should take in all men and all women, and the intolerant selfish man, while retaining all of his native strength, should become tolerant and generous, kind and forgiving.  67
  For the moment, however, the two natures struggled within him. A fight was to be fought, one more, the last, the fiercest, the attack of the enemy who menaced his very home and hearth, was to be resisted. Then, peace attained, arrested development would once more proceed.  68
  Hilma looked from the carryall, scanning the open plain in front of the advancing line of the drive.  69
  “Where are the rabbits?” she asked of Annixter. “I don’t see any at all.”  70
  “They are way ahead of us yet,” he said. “Here, take the glasses.”  71
  He passed her his field glasses, and she adjusted them.  72
  “Oh, yes,” she cried, “I see. I can see five or six, but oh, so far off.”  73
  “The beggars run ’way ahead, at first.”  74
  “I should say so. See them run,—little specks. Every now and then they sit up, their ears straight up in the air.”  75
  “Here, look, Hilma, there goes one close by.”  76
  From out of the ground apparently, some twenty yards distant, a great jack sprang into view, bounding away with tremendous leaps, his black-tipped ears erect. He disappeared, his gray body losing itself against the gray of the ground.  77
  “Oh, a big fellow.”  78
  “Hi, yonder’s another.”  79
  “Yes, yes, oh, look at him run.”  80
  From off the surface of the ground, at first apparently empty of all life, and seemingly unable to afford hiding place for so much as a field-mouse, jack-rabbits started up at every moment as the line went forward. At first, they appeared singly and at long intervals; then in twos and threes, as the drive continued to advance. They leaped across the plain, and stopped in the distance, sitting up with straight ears, then ran on again, were joined by others; sank down flush to the soil—their ears flattened; started up again, ran to the side, turned back once more, darted away with incredible swiftness, and were lost to view only to be replaced by a score of others.  81
  Gradually, the number of jacks to be seen over the expanse of stubble in front of the line of teams increased. Their antics were infinite. No two acted precisely alike. Some lay stubbornly close in a little depression between two clods, till the horses’ hoofs were all but upon them, then sprang out from their hiding-place at the last second. Others ran forward but a few yards at a time, refusing to take flight, scenting a greater danger before them than behind. Still others, forced up at the last moment, doubled with lightning alacrity in their tracks, turning back to scuttle between the teams, taking desperate chances. As often as this occurred, it was the signal for a great uproar.  82
  “Don’t let him get through; don’t let him get through.”  83
  “Look out for him, there he goes.”  84
  Horns were blown, bells rung, tin pans clamorously beaten. Either the jack escaped, or confused by the noise, darted back again, fleeing away as if his life depended on the issue of the instant. Once even, a bewildered rabbit jumped fair into Mrs. Derrick’s lap as she sat in the carryall, and was out again like a flash.  85
  “Poor frightened thing,” she exclaimed; and for a long time afterward, she retained upon her knees the sensation of the four little paws quivering with excitement, and the feel of the trembling furry body, with its wildly beating heart, pressed against her own.  86
  By noon the number of rabbits discernible by Annixter’s field glasses on ahead was far into the thousands. What seemed to be ground resolved itself, when seen through the glasses, into a maze of small moving bodies, leaping, ducking, doubling, running back and forth—a wilderness of agitated ears, white tails, and twinkling legs. The outside wings of the curved line of vehicles began to draw in a little; Osterman’s ranch was left behind, the drive continued on over Quien Sabe.  87
  As the day advanced, the rabbits, singularly enough, became less wild. When flushed, they no longer ran so far nor so fast, limping off instead a few feet at a time, and crouching down, their ears close upon their backs. Thus it was that by degrees the teams began to close up on the main herd. At every instant the numbers increased. It was no longer thousands, it was tens of thousands. The earth was alive with rabbits.  88
  Denser and denser grew the throng. In all directions nothing was to be seen but the loose mass of the moving jacks. The horns of the crescent of teams began to contract. Far off the corral came into sight. The disintegrated mass of rabbits commenced, as it were, to solidify, to coagulate. At first, each jack was some three feet distant from his nearest neighbor, but this space diminished to two feet, then to one, then to but a few inches. The rabbits began leaping over one another.  89
  Then the strange scene defined itself. It was no longer a herd covering the earth. It was a sea, whipped into confusion, tossing incessantly, leaping, falling, agitated by unseen forces. At times the unexpected tameness of the rabbits all at once vanished. Throughout certain portions of the herd eddies of terror abruptly burst forth. A panic spread; then there would ensue a blind, wild rushing together of thousands of crowded bodies, and a furious scrambling over backs, till the scuffing thud of innumerable feet over the earth rose to a reverberating murmur as of distant thunder, here and there pierced by the strange, wild cry of the rabbit in distress.  90
  The line of vehicles was halted. To go forward now meant to trample the rabbits under foot. The drive came to a standstill while the herd entered the corral. This took time, for the rabbits were by now too crowded to run. However, like an opened sluice-gate, the extending flanks of the entrance of the corral slowly engulfed the herd. The mass, packed tight as ever, by degrees diminished, precisely as a pool of water when a dam is opened. The last stragglers went in with a rush, and the gate was dropped.  91
  “Come, just have a look in here,” called Annixter.  92
  Hilma, descending from the carryall, and joined by Presley and Harran, approached and looked over the high board fence.  93
  “Oh, did you ever see anything like that?” she exclaimed.  94
  The corral, a really large enclosure, had proved all too small for the number of rabbits collected by the drive. Inside it was a living, moving, leaping, breathing, twisting mass. The rabbits were packed two, three, and four feet deep. They were in constant movement; those beneath struggling to the top, those on top sinking and disappearing below their fellows. All wildness, all fear of man, seemed to have entirely disappeared. Men and boys reaching over the sides of the corral, picked up a jack in each hand, holding them by the ears, while two reporters from San Francisco papers took photographs of the scene. The noise made by the tens of thousands of moving bodies was as the noise of wind in a forest, while from the hot and sweating mass there rose a strange odor, penetrating, ammoniacal, savoring of wild life.  95
  On signal, the killing began. Dogs that had been brought there for that purpose when let into the corral refused, as had been half expected, to do the work. They snuffed curiously at the pile, then backed off, disturbed, perplexed. But the men and boys—Portuguese for the most part—were more eager. Annixter drew Hilma away, and, indeed, most of the people set about the barbecue at once.  96
  In the corral, however, the killing went forward. Armed with a club in each hand, the young fellows from Guadalajara and Bonneville, and the farm boys from the ranches, leaped over the rails of the corral. They walked unsteadily upon the myriad of crowding bodies underfoot, or, as space was cleared, sank almost waist deep into the mass that leaped and squirmed about them. Blindly, furiously, they struck and struck. The Anglo-Saxon spectators round about drew back in disgust, but the hot, degenerated blood of Portuguese, Mexican, and mixed Spaniard boiled up in excitement at this wholesale slaughter.  97
  But only a few of the participants of the drive cared to look on. All the guests betook themselves some quarter of a mile farther on into the hills.  98
  The picnic and barbecue were to be held around the spring where Broderson Creek took its rise. Already two entire beeves were roasting there; teams were hitched, saddles removed, and men, women, and children, a great throng, spread out under the shade of the live oaks. A vast confused clamor rose in the air, a babel of talk, a clatter of tin plates, of knives and forks. Bottles were uncorked, napkins and oilcloths spread over the ground. The men lit pipes and cigars, the women seized the occasion to nurse their babies.  99
  Osterman, ubiquitous as ever, resplendent in his boots and English riding breeches, moved about between the groups, keeping up an endless flow of talk, cracking jokes, winking, nudging, gesturing, putting his tongue in his cheek, never at a loss for a reply, playing the goat.  100
  “That josher, Osterman, always at his monkey-shines, but a good fellow for all that; brainy too. Nothing stuck up about him either, like Magnus Derrick.”  101
  “Everything all right, Buck?” inquired Osterman, coming up to where Annixter, Hilma, and Mrs. Derrick were sitting down to their lunch.  102
  “Yes, yes, everything right. But we’ve no corkscrew.”  103
  “No screw-cork—no scare-crow? Here you are,” and he drew from his pocket a silver-plated jack-knife with a corkscrew attachment.  104
  Harran and Presley came up, bearing between them a great smoking, roasted portion of beef just off the fire. Hilma hastened to put forward a huge china platter.  105
  Osterman had a joke to crack with the two boys, a joke that was rather broad, but as he turned about, the words almost on his lips, his glance fell upon Hilma herself, whom he had not seen for more than two months. She had handed Presley the platter, and was now sitting with her back against the tree, between two boles of the roots. The position was a little elevated and the supporting roots on either side of her were like the arms of a great chair—a chair of state. She sat thus, as on a throne, raised above the rest, the radiance of the unseen crown of motherhood glowing from her forehead, the beauty of the perfect woman surrounding her like a glory.  106
  And the josh died away on Osterman’s lips, and unconsciously and swiftly he bared his head. Something was passing there in the air about him that he did not understand, something, however, that imposed reverence and profound respect. For the first time in his life, embarrassment seized upon him, upon this joker, this wearer of clothes, this teller of funny stories, with his large, red ears, bald head, and comic actor’s face. He stammered confusedly and took himself away, for the moment abstracted, serious, lost in thought.  107
  By now everyone was eating. It was the feeding of the People, elemental, gross, a great appeasing of appetite, an enormous quenching of thirst. Quarters of beef, roasts, ribs, shoulder, haunches were consumed, loaves of bread by the thousands disappeared, whole barrels of wine went down the dry and dusty throats of the multitude. Conversation lagged while the People ate, while hunger was appeased. Everybody had their fill. One ate for the sake of eating, resolved that there should be nothing left, considering it a matter of pride to exhibit a clean plate.  108
  After dinner, preparations were made for games. On a flat plateau at the top of one of the hills the contestants were to strive. There was to be a footrace of young girls under seventeen, a fat men’s race, the younger fellows were to put the shot, to compete in the running broad jump and the standing high jump, in the hop, skip, and step, and in wrestling.  109
  Presley was delighted with it all. It was Homeric, this feasting, this vast consuming of meat and bread and wine, followed now by games of strength. An epic simplicity and directness, an honest Anglo-Saxon mirth and innocence, commended it. Crude it was; coarse it was, but no taint of viciousness was here. These people were good people, kindly, benignant even, always readier to give than to receive, always more willing to help than to be helped. They were good stock. Of such was the backbone of the nation—sturdy Americans every one of them. Where else in the world round were such strong, honest men, such strong, beautiful women?  110

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